I watched the Mitt Romney “interview” last night on 60 Minutes. And I knew that it was a preview of the Presidential Debates. Romney kept doing “number” points — a debate trope that suggests he’s been working with his coaches, perhaps some from Old Jesus University (as you’ll see below).
Shake the Etch-A-Sketch enough times, and this is the
picture that people end up with in their memories …
Then, today, he went out and said that Anne Romney’s plane would have been OK if there were windows you could open on them. (After an endless series of “Reboots” the latest one evidently involves, Mitt Romney, Aerospace Engineer, but who can keep track as they roll by?)
Romney Doesn’t Understand Why You Can’t Roll Down Windows On A Plane
Annie-Rose Strasser / ThinkProgress
… On Monday, Mitt Romney offered a remedy to the problem that caused his wife’s airplane to land prematurely last week: Allow passengers to roll down the airplane windows. — Ann Romney’s plane was grounded Friday after the main cabin filled with smoke…
While this was rightly derided, this didn’t stop at least one blog from taking up the cudgel to claim that YES, MITT ROMNEY IS RIGHT!!!! I keeds you not:
Romney’s Right, the Idea of Roll up windows in Commercial Aircraft is Doable and a good Idea
24 SEP Posted by MacRanger
Think Progress, That George Soros Place – should change it’s name to “Think Backwards”, and Annie-Rose Strasser should shut up unless she has a physics degree.
Of course the assclown that wrote this hasn’t a clue what they’re talking about. You would be able to open a window on a commercial aircraft once it reached a ceiling of less than 10,000 feet. Actually pressurization isn’t mandatory at 10,000 feet, it’s on for comfort of passengers. I’ve flown many a military flight at that height without pressurization. So if an aircraft ran into that problem the flight could descend and open the window to allow the smoke to dissipate. Theoretically this is a very doable fix to an issue that happens quite a bit. That’s called progress, but Think Progress – that George Soros Place – isn’t interested in that at all.
Republican debate: make it up and sneer at anyone who disagrees. Worse, it’s not the only headline today indicating the new STRIKE BACK AGAINST REALITY campaign. (Hey, what’s Reality ever done for US? Screw Reality! We hatesses realitieses, my preciousses. Kill the hobbitses!):
Conservatives Embrace Alternate Polling Reality
Ruby Cramer / BuzzFeed:
Dean Chambers, founder of unskewedpolls.com, has reweighted national polling data based on Rasmussen partisan trends. His results give Romney a wide lead. — Via: unskewedpolls.com — Republicans have taken their complaints …
Throughout the blogosmear, Obama’s “wipeout” (yet another misattributed quote) has dominated the Memeorandum blogosphere waters all day, while the incredible and endless lies of the Romney Etch-A-Sketch have been shoved aside by the sheer weight and shotgun scatter of snark, led by Jennifer Rubin, a “conservative blogger” at the Washington Post.
Now, to understand this tactic, and HOW it just might work, I need to tell you a story about the National Debate Tournament in 1974, that I very much doubt you’ve ever heard of. And it is a cautionary tale about how you never answer a question or take a firm position … and WIN.
Tuesday, September 20, 2005
Occam’s Razor (modified)
Lost in the Katrina morass has been the waterproofed Supreme Court nomination of one John Roberts.
I read the transcripts and watched portions of the “hearings” — but I used to wade through thousands of pages of such hearings back when I was on the college debate team at TCU, long ago.
We had a pretty good team that year. Even though the final tally didn’t reflect it (as we’ll see later), there was general consensus that the best two teams in the nation that Watergate year were Old Jesus University and TCU (yes, I am a Horned Frog. Couldn’t you tell?). And they dueled all year long, with many tournament finals dominated by TCU v. Old Jesus University verbal slugfests. [NOTE: I am changing the name of the actual school to the accurate "Old Jesus University" for reasons that will become obvious.] Coincidentally, that Freshman year of mine happened to be John Roberts’ Freshman year at Haaaarvard (sic). Our coach had been a brilliant debater in college, and it was said that he and his partner had invented, INVENTED the Comparative Advantage case during a tournament in the Southeastern United States in the 1960s.That summer, in conjunction with TCU’s centennial celebration, he’d hosted the National Conference on Debate and Argumentation, and we were all issued purple-covered “proceedings,” after the TCU Press had printed them us.
2010 demolition of the TCU student center
(click to watch it on YouTube)
He didn’t know it, then, but this would be his last year in debate. Funny how you never realize when the high points were when you were living them. He would move on to become the manager of a city foundation in the industrial Midwest, and turn it into a charitable dynamo. And he would retire as a respected and admired member of the community. But this was his last hurrah in debate. And he was a superb teacher of debate.
Many of his lessons stick with me today: don’t worry about hitting ALL of the opposition’s arguments. Find the critical arguments and focus on them. Look for contradictions. And, find the primary sources. If there was any lasting value in my college education, the vast majority of it came from that magic year of debate.
Ironically, the debate topic that year was energy policy. Resolved that the Federal Government shall control energy policy in the United States, or something close to that. I say ‘ironically’ since during the late fall, the team was nearly stranded when gas prices exploded, and lines formed everywhere. They didn’t have enough cash to get BACK to TCU in the two white station wagons that the team used for transport. They were somewhere up in Kansas or Minnesota that week, I recall, and ended up in Oklahoma City, waiting for a Western Union wire transfer for gasoline money while the University Ministry of the Exchequer (whatever it was called) was hunted down on a Sunday night to authorize the cash in one of those Mack Sennett moments of slapstick and farce. (I was fortunate enough not to be along.)
Either someone’s granny showed up at a Western Union office early on a Monday morning, or else the students pooled all the cash they had and made it back to Fort Worth, Texas, our command headquarters — to use the current parlance. We deployed from there, at any event.
At the time (while it has changed), two two-person debate teams would square off, affirmative and negative. They split an even number of debates — perhaps eight rounds, over two days — arguing for and against.
The speeches were broken into ten minute “constructive” and five minute “rebuttal” arguments. Ten for the First Affirmative [speaker] who explains the problem and offers a solution in a (generally) pre-written speech; and ten for First Negative, who disagrees. Second Affirmative defends the case from First Negative’s foreordained negativity, and then the Second Negative attacks the plan.
Now, they switch, with First Negative taking the first five minute rebuttal — in which they re-argue, but no new arguments may be offered. That has given the Negative team a fifteen-minute block of time. Now, the First Affirmative Rebuttal (affectionately termed “One-A-R”) has to answer fifteen minutes in five. It’s the most challenging speech in debate, BTW. Then second Negative, and, finally, Second Affirmative, who has the last word, to go with having had the First. The crux, however, is the Affirmative Case, which defines territory of the debate.
And that year, there were many cases out there. There were a lot of conservation and solar energy cases; there were several “future energy” cases, featuring things like tidal power, ocean thermal gradients, magneto hydrodynamics (or, MHD); clean coal, and drilling for more oil cases. For a time, we ran a hydrogen case. There were a lot of nuclear cases, but MOSTLY banning all nuclear energy production. No one seriously tried to defend nukes after the first couple months of that season. Nuclear power was — alas for the debater who believed in it — fundamentally indefensible.
The Old Jesus University team ran a team case. They had decided it at the beginning of the season, and would fine-tune it for the remainder of the year.
TCU ran several cases, but generally won with them all, although they didn’t win them all. But they won a lot.
And I thought that perhaps becoming a lawyer (which most of them became) might be a very fine thing to become.
THE GOD DIONYSUS. Any fault there?
EURIPIDES. A dozen faults and more.
DIO. Eh! why the lines are only three in all.
EUR. But every one contains a score of faults.
DIO. Now Aeschylus, keep silent; if you don’t
You won’t get off with three iambic lines.
AESCHYLUS. Silent for _him_!
DIO. If _my_ advice you’ll take.
EUR. Why, at first starting here’s a fault sky high.
AESCH. (_To Dio_.) You see your folly.
DIO. Have your way; I care not.
AESCH. (_To Eur_.) What is my fault?
EUR. Begin the lines again.
– Aristophanes, The Frogs
Now, at the same time, I was taking an English course that was analyzing that famed English author Aristophanes.We read “The Frogs” and then “The Clouds.”And, having spent the prior year under the lash of our high school humanities teacher, Mr. Gill, of whom a generation of Santa Fe high school graduates can tell horror stories, and a big part of his opening schtick was the death of Socrates, or, the Apology (the trial) and the Phaedo (the death).So, there was always a certain outrage (as Socrates is reputed to have felt) towards Aristophanes, who, in parodying Socrates’ arch-enemies, the Sophists, portrayed Socrates as a Sophist, as well.
The Sophists were, evidently, rhetorical tutors, who would teach young males (politicians on the make, in that most political of all city-states, Athens) how to win all arguments. The word survives into English, with our words “sophisticated” and “sophistries.” The former means, of course, swilling champagne, while the latter means to swill beer calling it champagne.And it didn’t take long to note that the parallels between the Sophists of both Aristophanes AND Socrates were quite uncomfortable in the case of college debate.
The question “is it good and true?” had been replaced by “is it the argument that will win?” The rest was just details and socializing.
Phidippides. I will pass over to that part of my discourse
where you interrupted me; and first I will ask you this:
Did you beat me when I was a boy?
Strepsiades. I did, through good-will and concern for you.
Phid. Pray tell me, is it not just that I also should be
well inclined toward you in the same way, and beat you,
since this is to be well inclined-to give a beating? For
why ought your body to be exempt from blows and mine
not? And yet I too was born free. The boys weep, and do
you not think it is right that a father should weep? You
will say that it is ordained by law that this should be
the lot of boys. But I would reply, that old men are
boys twice over, and that it is the more reasonable that
the old should weep than the young, inasmuch as it is
less just that they should err.
Strep. It is nowhere ordained by law that a father
should suffer this.
Phid. Was it not then a man like you and me, who first
proposed this law, and by speaking persuaded the
ancients? Why then is it less lawful for me also in turn
to propose henceforth a new law for the sons, that they
should beat their fathers in turn? But as many blows as
we received before the law was made, we remit: and we
concede to them our having been thrashed without return.
Observe the cocks and these other animals, how they
punish their fathers; and yet, in what do they differ
from us, except that they do not write decrees?
Strep. Why then, since you imitate the cocks in all
things, do you not both eat dung and sleep on a perch?
Phid. It is not the same thing, my friend; nor would it
appear so to Socrates.
Strep. Therefore do not beat me; otherwise you will one
day blame yourself.
Phid. Why, how?
Strep. Since I am justly entitled to chastise you; and
you to chastise your son, if you should have one.
– Aristophanes, The Clouds
Debate inadvertently pushed me into the life of verbosity and sloth that I now inhabit, so it wasn’t all bad. But it inadvertently pushed me back to Socrates, and I took a course on formal logic, so that I would at least have the nomenclature for the specious arguments with which I was contending nearly every weekend.I felt a lot like most of us feel when forced to watch Faux Nooz: they slap us in the face with “fair and balanced” and then tell a tale that we know isn’t right, but we don’t know WHY the logic’s wrong. Or, we would have a hard time explaining it in a few words.We learned about the argumentum ad hominem, the non sequitur, the straw man, the ‘two wrongs don’t make a right,’ the post hoc ergo propter hoc (“after this, therefore BECAUSE of this), et al, ad nauseum, etcetera.
Didn’t do me a bit of good in debate.
And Aristophanes continued making fun of the Sophists, with whom I rubbed shoulders nearly every weekend.
[Exeunt Socrates and Strepsiades]
Chorus. Well, go in peace, for the sake of this your valour. May prosperity attend the man, because, being advanced into the vale of years, he imbues his intellect with modern subjects, and cultivates wisdom!
[Turning to the audience.]
Spectators, I will freely declare to you the truth, by Bacchus, who nurtured me! So may I conquer, and be accounted skillful, as that, deeming you to be clever spectators, and this to be the cleverest of my comedies, I thought proper to let you first taste that comedy, which gave me the greatest labour. And then I retired from the contest defeated by vulgar fellows, though I did not deserve it. These things, therefore, I object to you, a learned audience, for whose sake I was expending this labour.
– Aristophanes, The Clouds
The irony of debate is that, while it is an exercise in public speaking, the debaters generally outnumber the spectators in any given debate. Four debaters, two two-person teams, affirmative and negative, engage in an elaborate formal rhetorical minuet before an audience of one, the judge.
It may have to do with the fact that football is easier on the eyes. Perhaps it is just that oratory is fundamentally dull as a sport. So it is unsurprising that no one, outside of the occasional girl- or boyfriend, ever watches preliminary rounds unless they have to.And, since there are a dearth of available judges, the various team coaches put aside their team hats, and become (hopefully) impartial debate judges, which is great for the teacher, but presents ethical dilemmas for the coach out to win.That year, we could never win a debate in front of a certain judge from a small Texas university.
It took much of the season, but I finally pieced together the story:He had been the coach at our school, and had been summarily dismissed when it was learned that he was gay. And, understandably, he harbored an unreasoning hatred for our school, and made certain that we always lost any debate that he was called to adjudge.Funny thing was, his comments were among the best on the ballots that had to be filled out (who won; what the issues were, and speaker points, which counted towards a “best speaker” inpidual trophy at the end of the tournament), and he ALWAYS gave our debaters superb speaker points.
So, that was how he resolved his dilemma. When it became known, it was quietly arranged that he would never sit on a multi-judge panel during the final rounds if one of our debate teams was involved.
But that year the Old Jesus University coach was, in addition to being a brilliant debate strategist himself, a win-at-any-costs debate judge.
It became apparent as the year progressed that he would give the win or the loss in any debate to the team that would most benefit HIS team’s chances.
Rather than a gentlemanly exercise in mentorship (because, really, we were being judged by the collective pedantry of the debating profession), the Old Jesus University coach had adopted the model of having all NASCAR participants swapping pit crews.
And he poured sugar in the gas tank as often as he could.
But that was in keeping with their case, which was sometimes characterized as “like trying to screw fog.” Debaters who had run into it again and again would try attacking from an opposite direction, and the entire case would shift. If there were not enough trucks, they had a plan to provide enough trucks; if there were too many trucks, then they could prove that there were exactly enough trucks.
Clearly, the question had not become in inquiry into the “truth” of the case. It had become a question of simply winning, whether the facts bore one out or not.
And I began to think that studying the law and becoming an attorney might be a terrible thing, after all.
This was Socrates’ horror. He was a truth-seeker, after all, and I was, by temperament, unsuited to arguing a case that I cynically did not believe. It was easy enough to raise questions about anything, so Negative cases weren’t a problem. And you could find a case you “believed” in, at least that you thought it would be a good idea.
But, the Old Jesus University coach and his gang cared mainly about winning.
Now, they never were caught “cheating” in the sense of making up evidence, nor any other dirty tricks. They saved those for the debates themselves, as they became masters of the slippery argument and the sly fallacy. They were, as I watched the duel between TCU and Old Jesus University, the perfect sophists.
Because they were being taught by their single-minded coach, that ultimate truth of reason: that ALL arguments can ultimately be defeated, because logic is ANALYTICAL, which mean, literally “to break down.”
You can always break down any argument simply by finding its premises (its unprovable basis) and just saying “uh-uh.”
Ultimately, you can win any argument simply by demanding that the arguer prove to you that he or she exists. If they can’t prove that, then their arguments don’t have to be answered.
But that isn’t the goal of debate. The goal of debate is to learn to weigh the relative truths of this world, and to present reasonable arguments for and against policy choices.
After I’d dropped out and moved to Hollywood, they had a panel of college “debate coaches” comment on the Ford-Carter debates, and dang if I didn’t know two or three of them. So, what was happening on the national debate scene in that year 1973-1974 had its own influence on a lot of future lawyers.
The great duel took place at the regional debate tournament (between Dallas and Fort Worth) at the University of Texas, Arlington, and the finals were, as all expected, TCU and Old Jesus University. This match had been brewing all year long, and this was to be the culminating struggle. The Debate Armageddon. Both teams’ top duos moved through their respective “seedings” with fluid ease, and the championship debate would be held between our best two teams, respectively.
It had been a good year for the TCU debate team. While the TCU football team was losing every game but its opening, and the TCU basketball team’s style was more suited to the demolition derby than to hoops, we were winning trophies, and at one point wrote a letter to the local paper — which they published — noting our coverage-worthy feats, and asking that they cover said feats — which, subsequently, they did not.
And, the final battle was set.
Phidippides. Here rave and babble to yourself.
Strepsiades. Ah me, what madness! How mad, then, I was when I ejected the gods on account of Socrates! But O dear Hermes, by no means be wroth with me, nor destroy me; but pardon me, since I have gone crazy through prating. And become my adviser, whether I shall bring an action and prosecute them, or whatever you think. You advise me rightly, not permitting me to get up a lawsuit, but as soon as possible to set fire to the house of the prating fellows. Come hither, come hither, Xanthias! Come forth with a ladder and with a mattock and then mount upon the thinking-shop and dig down the roof, if you love your master, until you tumble the house upon them.
[Xanthias mounts upon the roof]
But let some one bring me a lighted torch and I’ll make some of them this day suffer punishment, even if they be ever so much impostors.
1st Disciple of Socrates. (from within) Hollo! Hollo!
Strepsiades. It is your business, O torch, to send forth abundant flame.
[Mounts upon the roof]
1st Dis. What are you doing, fellow?
Strep. What am I doing? Why, what else, than chopping logic with the beams of your house?
[Sets the house on fire]
2nd Disciple of Socrates.(from within) You will destroy us! You will destroy us!
Strep. For I also wish this very thing; unless my mattock deceive my hopes, or I should somehow fall first and break my neck.
Socrates. (from within). Hollo you! What are you doing, pray, you fellow on the roof?
Strep. I am walking on air, and speculating about the sun.
Soc. Ah me, unhappy! I shall be suffocated, wretched man!
Chaerephon. And I, miserable man, shall be burnt to death!
Strep. For what has come into your heads that you acted insolently toward the gods, and pried into the seat of the moon? Chase, pelt, smite them, for many reasons, but especially because you know that they offended against the gods!
[The thinking shop is burned down]
Chorus. Lead the way out; for we have sufficiently acted as chorus for today.
– Aristophanes, The Clouds
I think you have a pretty good idea how it turned out. They flipped a coin to see who took Affirmative, and who took Negative, and Old Jesus University won the toss. By all accounts, it was an apocalyptic debate, a close debate, etc.
But the Old Jesus University snake-oil case proved impervious to evidence and argument, and they won.
A couple weeks later, they breezed through the National Debate Tournament, and that was the end of the season.
But I was deeply troubled. Was this the value that rhetoric had in our society? That it was about slickness, and not facts? About sophistry and not Socratic reasoning?
And the answer was “yes.” I immediately cancelled any thoughts of law school. The next year, our coach resigned, or left or was not renewed, clearly not valued by an administration obsessed with getting a winning football team (it would be years before they succeeded — they would not win a single game the following year, setting a record for gridiron futility that was shortly topped by Northwestern). He intended to move to another school, but ended up in the industrial Midwest and, as I said, became the director of a large charitable foundation and retired a year or so ago.
The Old Jesus University fellows went on. One was a network commentator for the Ford-Carter debates, as noted earlier.
But debate had proven to me that Socrates had lost where it really counted, and that the Sophists, much maligned by both Aristophanes and Plato, were alive, well, and doing just fine. They seemed to me soulless men and women, without any moral core, at least in an ethical sense, and in my years since, I have met their brethren and sisters in the professional practice.
We call them lawyers.
And, listening to the Roberts confirmation hearings, and reading the transcripts, I could not help but think of that year in college debate, and its final outcome, and the oily Old Jesus University debate case.
Because, in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, John Roberts ran the Old Jesus University debate case as well as anybody ever has.
Socrates (l.) detail from Raphael’s “School of Athens”
… and the man who gave him the poison now and then looked at his feet and legs; and after a while he pressed his foot hard, and asked him if he could feel; and he said, No; and then his leg, and so upwards and upwards, and showed us that he was cold and stiff. And he felt them himself, and said: When the poison reaches the heart, that will be the end. He was beginning to grow cold about the groin, when he uncovered his face, for he had covered himself up, and said–they were his last words–he said: Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius*; will you remember to pay the debt?
The debt shall be paid, said Crito; is there anything else? There was no answer to this question; but in a minute or two a movement was heard, and the attendants uncovered him; his eyes were set, and Crito closed his eyes and mouth.
Such was the end, Echecrates, of our friend; concerning whom I may truly say, that of all the men of his time whom I have known, he was the wisest and justest and best.
– The Death of Socrates (End of the Phaedo, by Plato)
And it seems a dead certainty that John Roberts will be confirmed as Chief Justice, to our eventual sorrow. I might be wrong. Perhaps the Supreme court will change the man, but I fear I’m more liable to be right than wrong on this one, no matter how much I might hope to be wrong.
Courage. [this ends the 2005 portion. we now return you to your regularly scheduled 2012 timing...]
[*NOTE: Asclepius (or, Aesclepius) was the God of Healing. The irony here -- or, Socrates' last joke -- is that the sacrifice was usually performed as thanks for healing from an illness. Most scholars feel that Socrates (or Plato, editorializing) was saying, in essence, "I'm cured of the illness called 'being alive.'" It may well be that Socrates did, in fact, owe Aesclepius a rooster, and wanted to ensure better sleeping arrangements in Hades. But who am I to quibble? -- HW]
Posted by: hart wms / 9/20/2005 10:49:00 PM
Which brings us back to the Etch-a-Sketch and its moment.
This continual “rebooting” might seem dishonest, a transparent confidence game (a ‘con job’ in common parlance) or just another ad campaign to push some swill on the American Public that the American Public hasn’t shown any likelihood of adopting.
But it is really the “Old Jesus University” debate program, in which we, who took the whole notion of debating about serious policy proposals are thrown out the window in favor of “Just win, baby!” The difference here is that Old Jesus U. could take their oxymoronic trophies for doing the Devil’s Work and put them in a display, get nice coverage in the local, wacko, newspaper, put it on their résumés and forget about it. On to the next lie.
But in THIS case, should the “debate” be won, we WILL see roll-down windows in airplanes until public opinion turns against it, and then we will see roll-down windows in airplanes outlawed, and 2016 Re-election Campaign ads saying: VOTE FOR MITT ROMNEY, WHO SAVED US FROM ROLL-DOWN WINDOWS ON AIRPLANES!